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My Dad the Upo Whisperer

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An upo is a Filipino bottle gourd that grows on vines, becoming as large as a baseball bat. Its outer skin is thick, green, and a bit fuzzy. The flesh is bright white, with many seeds, and has a mild taste when cooked that complements other more intensely-flavored ingredients. This makes it perfect for many Filipino soups and stews, such as bulanglang. Upo can also be served on its own as a vegetable side dish. Upo is known as a “winter melon” despite being a tropical vegetable. Filipinos fail to see any disagreement between “winter” and “tropical” since the temperature in the Philippines never dips below 80 degrees.


Most of my Dad’s neighbors in Brooklyn were familiar with this beast of a gourd, but not because they grew upo themselves. Rather, all those who had the privilege of seeing my dad’s garden were in awe of it, and those who were not so fortunate had heard about it through the upovine. Dad’s garden was the stuff of urban legends.


My dad grew upo in his backyard garden from seeds saved from each previous year’s harvest. This alone is not too amazing; but Dad’s upo vines grew so thick and long they covered the entire backyard—that was mostly concrete. The actual plot of dirt that the vines sprouted from was one foot by eight feet. The vines covered an area that was roughly twenty by fifteen feet. The vines would grow so thickly that they provided complete shade from the sun underneath, and the upo grew so plentifully upon them that you needed to cut three or four of them down if you wanted to sit under the shady vines. Every chance Dad got, he would arrive at the house of a friend or relative carrying a few upo on his shoulder, like he was going to batting practice. Once he came home from an outdoor farmer’s market with a huge smile on his face, because he’d spotted a vendor selling upo—much smaller than his own—for ten dollars apiece. He calculated his current crop to be just shy of a thousand dollars—but was adamant that he would never sell any of it.   


This phenomenon began in the 70s, when I was five or six years old. That first spring, Dad grew his maiden crop from seeds he’d brought back from a recent visit to the Philippines. The upo didn’t grow any longer than a foot or two, but they were wide and fat. The next year, my uncle gave Dad some upo seeds that an Italian neighbor had given him. Dad was a bit skeptical, thinking that maybe the Italian guy had misunderstood the Filipino word for the plant. But my uncle insisted that there had been no confusion and that nothing had been lost in the translation from Italian to English to Tagalog. So Dad planted the Italian seeds alongside seeds saved from the previous year’s Filipino upo. My uncle had been right—his Italian neighbor had indeed given him upo seeds. The “Italian” upo were skinny and very, very long. A few years later, thanks to cross-pollination and tender loving care, Dad’s upo were growing to an average of four feet in length and four inches in diameter.


I have many memories of sitting under the shady vines and running around our piece of the concrete jungle—bobbing and weaving through the hanging upo. When I was in grade school, I would invite my friends to play in my backyard. As soon as they saw the garden, they would stare openmouthed. When I brought my soon-to-be husband to my parents’ house for the first time, the first thing he wanted to see was the backyard, since I’d talked about it so much, he felt he had to see it with his own eyes immediately. Dad’s upo garden never disappointed.


Each year my Dad would select one huge upo and save its seeds for the next year’s crop. Until I was about ten years old, that one huge upo was consistently taller and heavier than me. This “mega” upo was usually about four-and-a-half feet tall and weighed about sixty-five pounds. It was very intimidating and gave me a complex. Dad would have to find some safe corner of the house for it; I was afraid it would accidentally fall on me and crush the tender bones in my body. 


In the spring, Dad would crack open the huge, dried upo, extricate its seeds, and plant them in his narrow plot of dirt. He would till the soil first, mixing in some smelly manure as fertilizer, then plant his seeds a few inches apart in a single row. Every day he would water his seeds and shoo away the squirrels, until little seedlings sprouted. While he waited for the seedlings to get bigger, my dad would tend to the trellis and latticework that would eventually support the vines. He would use rope to repair spots that were worn from the winter’s snow and ice. Sometimes he improvised using objects he’d found in the house. Once I saw him use an old shoelace of mine, and I was secretly happy it would become part of his upo garden. 


A few weeks ago, my parents sold their old house. Now they’re living in a spacious condominium in New Jersey. Dad’s upo garden is no more. It’s become part of Brooklyn lore, Dad’s story being entitled “That Filipino Man Who Grew Green Baseball Bats in a Concrete Garden.” Never again will my dad toil in his tiny bit of dirt during the early days of spring, or take a mid-day siesta sitting under the canopy of vines during the summer. But my father did save that one huge upo from his last year’s harvest. He bestowed his upo legacy upon my husband, who always appreciated Dad’s green thumb. And this spring, with the help of the upo whisperer, my husband and I will have our neighbors talking…

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